Bosnia postpones census over ethnic disagreements

Mostar bridge Bosnia.jpg

Bosnia's first census since its 1992-95 war has been postponed until October following the failure of regional governments to agree on how to conduct it.

Something as routine as counting citizens is very sensitive in Bosnia, where ethnic and religious divides were at the heart of wars in the 1990s when some 100,000 people were killed and 2 million displaced during the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Bosnia's regions are linked by a weak central government – dogged by sensitive issues around ethnicity, religion and language – with development and reforms often hostage to ethnic politicking and conflicting visions of the nation's future.

Bosnia's Muslims are campaigning to make sure members of their ethnic group declare themselves as such in the census, fearing otherwise the results will cement the effects of wartime ethnic cleansing, diminishing the so-called Bosniaks' influence.

The government on Wednesday (23 January) cited among the reasons for the delay: data exchange between regional agencies, revision of questionnaires, training of field staff and registering addresses.

The census, originally planned for April this year and now due to be conducted between 1 and 15 October, may have ramifications for the complex system of ethnic power-sharing enshrined in the Dayton peace treaty that ended the fighting.

Rival Serb, Muslim and Croat political leaders have long been at odds over how to hold the census, but finally reached agreement in February 2012 under pressure from the European Union, which Bosnia wants to one day join.

EU officials had warned last month that a lack of political will to address census issues quickly was likely to force a postponement. The bloc needs up-to-date population data for its future members in order to better plan financial aid.

Dayton split Bosnia into two highly autonomous, ethnically-based regions: the Federation, dominated by Muslims and Croats, and the Serb Republic, dominated by Serbs.

The country's last census was carried out in 1991 when its population was 4.4 million: 43.7% Muslims, 31.4% Serbs and 17.3% Croats.

The European Commission presented on 10 October 2012 the progress reports on the nine countries on their way toward EU accession - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Iceland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.

Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Iceland and Serbia are candidate countries, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo are considered potential candidates. Croatia is due to joint the EU in 2013.

The big laggard in the group is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Commission noted that governance reforms are stalled and that the main ethnic entities - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - are lack interest in pursuing a common future.

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